WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT

C-

If you stretched things, you might find about enough material for a twenty-two minute episode of his network TV series in Ray Romano’s feature debut; unfortunately, “Welcome to Mooseport” runs for more than an hour and a half. That doesn’t make so much for dead spots; it’s more like a hundred-minute dead spot punctuated by very occasional moments of feeble humor. And unlike “Everybody Loves Raymond,” you have to pay for it, too.

The script by Tom Schulman, whose previous work has gone from the high of “Dead Poets Society” (for which he unaccountably won an Oscar) to the low of “Holy Man” (with plenty of stuff in between, including “8 Heads in a Duffel Bag,” a mess that he also directed), is a very old-fashioned underdog tale with a heavy dose of local color. The premise is that President Monroe Cole (Gene Hackman), who’s just left office, comes to live at his retreat in Moosehead, Maine, his Baltimore home having gone to ex-First Lady Charlotte (Catherine Baranski) in an acrimonious divorce settlement. No sooner does Cole arrive than he’s asked by the obligatory bunch of colorful town bigwigs to run for mayor, the long-time holder of the office having suddenly died. He agrees–for reasons that are far-fetched even by the permissive standards of such fantasies–only to find that local plumber Harold “Handy” Harrison (Romano) had previously registered as a candidate. The good-natured Handy initially agrees to withdraw, but changes his mind when Cole shows an interest in his long-suffering girlfriend Sally (Maura Tierney), a spunky vet who’s been waiting six years for her guy to stop taking her for granted and pop the question. This sets up a contentious race in which Cole brings in big gun advisor Bert Langdon (Rip Torn) while his resident aides–bumbling Bullard (Fred Savage) and cool Grace (Marcia Gay Harden), who obviously loves Monroe in silence–look on with increasing incredulity. Handy, meanwhile, is egged on by his hardware store staff, most notably sharp-tongued Irma (June Squibb) and blissfully goofy clerk Bob (Paul Bates).

There might have been the stuff of satire in all this, however far-fetched the motivations and turns of plot–wouldn’t one think that Handy’s occupation might have led to something to do with White House plumbers?–but Schulman’s not at all interested. He opts instead for a nice, inoffensive family comedy, a bit of political fluff several rungs below “Dave” on the sharpness scale. That might have been okay except for the fact that he’s written the characters as either hopelessly dumb or simply unpleasant. Handy, for example, is such a dimwit that it’s utterly impossible to care about him in the slightest, and Romano plays him with an unvarying dog-faced sense of woe that might work in short doses on the tube but is simply wearying over the long haul n the big screen. Tierney isn’t nearly so dreary, but since Sally is a poorly-written role too, her motivation careening all over the place as the story drags on, her generalized perkiness grows tiresome. As for Hackman’s President Monroe, he belies his reported canniness by making all sorts of stupid mistakes, not the least his total obliviousness to Grace’s interest in him. Hackman plays the part with a cagey gruffness that might work if the script gave him something to chew on, but it doesn’t, and Harden, a fine actress, is totally wasted as a schoolmarmish sort who’s occasionally required to blubber about her unrequited passion. Torn does his shtick in a more restrained fashion than usual–would that he were as beautifully sleazy as he was on the old “Larry Sanders Show”–but Baranski is, once again, unrelievedly shrill, and Squibb manages to seem one of the most pointlessly nasty old hags depicted onscreen in a long while (though Irma is–I think–meant to be charmingly cantankerous). Bates adds a few nicely offbeat notes.

But one shouldn’t blame the cast overmuch. It’s Schulman’s tepid script, and the flaccid direction by Donald Petrie (whose last effort was the equally drab “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”), that really sink things. Technically the movie is no more than adequate; Canadian locations once again stand in for the northeastern United States with only modest success, and the overall production design has a relatively cheesy look, not helped by Victor Hammer’s brightly-lit cinematography. John Debney’s score is one of those chirpy concoctions that irritates more than it engages.

Incidentally, one might find it a mite distasteful to find a character played by Hackman, who’s 73, romantically linked with one played by Tierney, who’s 38. (In fairness, he’s supposed to be a somewhat younger fellow.) It appears, though, that President Monroe has found the fountain of youth. At one point, in a scene in Monroe’s office, you can glimpse a rather surrealistic photo of him standing beside then-President Jimmy Carter, a shot that has to be at least a quarter-century old, and damned if he doesn’t appear to have changed not at all over the years (though Carter certainly has). One has to assume, therefore, that when Sally is 63, Monroe will still look 73. That’s not so great an age disparity, after all.

So “Welcome to Mooseport” proves not a very inviting proposition. If you want an enjoyable movie set in Maine about an underdog taking on powerful interests, check out “It Happened to Jane” from 1959, in which Doris Day, of all people, plays a lobster-catcher who tangles with a mean old railway owner played with Snidely Whiplash glee by Ernie Kovacs. (Her love interest is the young Jack Lemmon.) It’s an old picture, of course, but it’s held up better for nearly half a century than “Mooseport” will for half a day.